Salzburg Festival Terrace Talk: The Bassarids 15 August 2018


(SF, 15 August 2018) A masterwork of the composer’s art – such is Kent Nagano’s description of Hans Werner Henze’s opera The Bassarids. “We had to dig very deep in rehearsal in order to represent the entire breadth of colours, of longing, of emotion and also of the dramaturgy,” the conductor explains. The work had its world premiere in 1966 at the Großes Festspielhaus in Salzburg. “Today, we view this work from a different perspective,” Nagano says: at the time, it was daring, a new language. Today, he is somewhat more careful with the composer’s instructions, for example quadruple forte markings, for Henze wrote these instructions at the time to emphasize an effect, i.e. a style of playing without limitations. Today, in mere technical terms, this is nothing new, and so he treats these markings by the composer, who was a young man at the time, with circumspection.

On the one hand, the opera contains the family level, and on the other the social perspective, director Krzysztof Warlikowski says. The Bassarids are the citizens of Thebes, seduced by the cult of Dionysus. There is the beginning and the end – sections characterized by the citizens’ rationality – and then there is the middle section, ruled by arbitrariness and chaos, in which the people fall under the sway of a swindler. “Henze focuses the content of this opera on the masses, on the people,” the director says. In the end, they all understand the chaos that has befallen them, yet nobody is able to say how they got there. “At the time of the first performance, a whiff of freedom was making itself felt during the post-war period,” Warlikowski says. “Henze rewards the wish of the masses for direction by giving them a prophet – religion as opium for the masses, I think that is what Henze wanted to say with this opera. He shows a people which finds the Dionysian element more attractive than the respectability of Pentheus.” The director adds that he arrived in Salzburg for the first presentation of the work with many questions running through his mind. And now he wishes to pose the same questions on stage. “Sometimes, language has no answer for a given question. And that is exactly where music begins,” says Krzysztof Warlikowski. He has subdivided the broad stage at the Felsenreitschule into four sections: the middle section is the place of the coronation; to the right is Agave’s bedroom, an intimate space; to the left is the place of ritual and worship and a mountain rising steeply upwards. The mountain interacts visually with all the other levels.

The singer Ariane Baumgartner emphasizes that she was delighted to devote the first few days of rehearsal to purely musical matters. “Afterwards, we had the opportunity to rehearse to our heart’s content for a whole week on the original stage at the Felsenreitschule,” which lends the performers a lot of security. “We had the time to go through the piece in detail,” she recounts. Her colleague Sean Panikkar is also happy about the lengthy rehearsal phase: “There was time to experiment and be creative. Even at the dress rehearsal, not everything was set in stone, and we made a small change, which I appreciate very much,” the singer performing the role of Dionysus says. Thanks to Warlikowski, both the opera and the ancient myth are being examined from a fresh perspective, he adds. Russell Braun, who sings the role of Pentheus, emphasizes how important it was for him to experience the open minds of his colleagues during rehearsals. “A sensitive artist must be prepared to make changes during rehearsals. If your approach is too rigid, nothing can develop,” he says, adding that this is exactly what happened here: nobody resisted, everyone was ready to experiment.

After lengthy discussions, a decision was made to use the original libretto and stage the English version of the opera, Kent Nagano recounts. (The world premiere used a German version.) Kent Nagano too is grateful for the intense and profound musical rehearsals. “We had a lot of discussions during the first rehearsals,” he says. “However, in the end that is very helpful in transferring the work to such a special place as the Felsenreitschule.” This stage is a place where magic is possible. He explains that often the singers are so far removed from him in this production that he is unable to see them, but thanks to the intensive rehearsal period, communication via aesthetic instinct is possible.

Asked about his view of The Bassarids from today’s standpoint, director Krzysztof Warlikowski responds: “It offers us many perspectives.” He compares it to Europe, which is currently being lulled by the voices of right-wing extremists. “Something is happening in the 21st century which we thought was over and done with,” he says. As a Polish citizen, he often feels a stranger in his own country when this issue arises. That is exactly what the opera also expresses, and perhaps the music offers answers to certain questions. The Bassarids by Hans Werner Henze premieres at the Felsenreitschule on August 16.